The Thomas Sankara I Knew

Joséphine Ouédraogo
David Broder

Burkina Faso revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara was murdered on this day in 1987. Joséphine Ouédraogo recounts her time as a minister in his government — and their final meeting before he was ousted in a bloody coup d’état.

Thomas Sankara at a press conference in Paris, 1986. (Pascal George / AFP via Getty Images)

Interview by
Maxime Quijoux
Hadrien Clouet

On August 4, 1983, a thirty-three-year-old army officer called Thomas Sankara seized power in Upper Volta, which he soon renamed Burkina Faso. At the head of what one historian labeled an “unstable coalition of small political groups and military factions,” he immediately embarked on a far-reaching political turn aimed at securing true economic and democratic sovereignty for the West African country.

Over the next four years, the revolution led by Sankara advanced a project of social transformation, seeking to shake off the legacy of French colonial domination. His government adopted a series of key economic measures in this vein, from breaking up the privileges of the state bureaucracy to agrarian reform and the quest for self-sufficiency in food and manufacturing. The revolution also meant the promotion of women’s rights — with professional training and the fight against genital mutilation and polygamy — as well as vast vaccination and literacy campaigns, environmental protection measures, and support for national liberation movements abroad.

Yet this revolution was also met with opposition from powerful groups in Burkinabé society, from public officials now subject to a militarized discipline to traditional chiefs stripped of their customary authority. Sankara’s changes troubled not only the most privileged categories — notably including parts of the military and business elites — but also established trade unions whose role was challenged by workplace Revolutionary Defense Committees, and both pro-Soviet and social-democratic oppositional forces.

Ultimately the revolution came to an end on October 15, 1987, when Sankara was killed in a coup led by former ally Blaise Compaoré. Taking over the presidency, Compaoré maintained his power for the next twenty-seven years through systematic electoral fraud, before he was finally ousted by a popular uprising in 2014.

Joséphine Ouédraogo was Minister for Family Development and National Solidarity under Thomas Sankara (1984–87). Also the justice minister in a transitional government in 2014–15 after Compaoré was overthrown, she is currently the country’s ambassador to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. In a wide-ranging interview, she spoke to Jacobin contributors Maxime Quijoux and Hadrien Clouet about her experiences working alongside Sankara. Here we present an abridged translation of the French original.

Maxime Quijoux

You were a thirty-four-year-old sociologist in August 1984 when Thomas Sankara asked you to be a minister in his government. What was that like?

Joséphine Ouédraogo

I was very surprised. Not by Sankara’s coup d’état, because we could feel it coming. But he made very sharp speeches against imperialism and neocolonialism, and took severe measures against reactionaries and those considered enemies of the revolution. In addition, he was a politically committed soldier, a patriot who openly expressed his revolt against all reactionary forces and accomplices of the Western imperialist powers in Africa. This violence was rather frightening to me. Even if I fully adhered to the values he was defending — social justice, political independence, freedom, democracy, and popular development — as a sociologist, I was convinced that political and societal change could not be brought about brutally and suddenly.

We had already met and often saw each other, as his wife was a friend of my sister’s. He called me on the phone to make an appointment to meet me at his office, telling me: “The revolution needs you.” They had just passed their first year of revolutionary governance, during which they had unambiguously nailed their colors to the mast. They had taken some very difficult steps, which had caused some commotion.

He explained to me: “I need people like you, because I want to form my new government with technocrats rather than ideologues.” I told him that I wasn’t at all prepared to be a minister and that I was ready to work for the revolution as a technical director or head of an institution. He replied: “We are not looking for people who are prepared to be ministers, but people who are ready for change. You know the terrain, you travel through the bush, you are in tune with the peasants, you work in a concrete way. We want the revolution to be connected to social realities. It is this dimension that I would like you to bring.”

I thought that was interesting, I thanked him for his consideration and replied that I would think about it and consult some of my relatives. He agreed. And then, while I was conferring with my relatives, I heard the radio announcing the composition of the government with my name in the post of Minister of Family Development and National Solidarity. [Laughter]

After our interview, he clearly thought that it would work. In September 1984, I was appointed Minister. His method was to meet every member of the government and say: “This is what I want, this is my vision for the sector you are in charge of.” In my case, he explained to me the difference between the social policy of the former Ministry of Social Affairs and his vision of a policy of Family Development and National Solidarity. The social policy of the prerevolutionary regimes was essentially limited to social assistance for women, children, vulnerable people, and all this approach induced and reproduced a spirit of assistance from above. It was a legacy of French social policy.

He continued: “I want to break with all that. I want this ministry to contribute to a change in our society. To help us raise the status of women, I will create the Union of Burkinabé Women to encourage women to organize themselves in a political movement for emancipation. It is up to women to defend their rights. I will create the conditions for them to express themselves. But you create the institutional and technical conditions so that the economic and legal status of women within the family can change. I add to this national solidarity, to fight against exclusion and extreme poverty, for which we are primarily responsible. For it is our socioeconomic system and our mode of governance which engender exclusion and the impoverishment of a part of the population. Now we want to assume our responsibility toward the neglected… because we no longer want to delegate external NGOs and external partners the responsibility to provide us with assistance which also doesn’t get to the root of the problem. So, I’m asking you to propose a strategy for the development of the Burkinabé family and the promotion of collective responsibility and national solidarity toward the most disadvantaged.” Then, I had to come back a few days later to submit my strategic proposals to him. He did the same for all the members of the government.

Maxime Quijoux

It was a big responsibility…

Joséphine Ouédraogo

Yes, I was thirty-four! [Laughs] In the cabinet, we were all between thirty and maximum forty years old. Thomas Sankara himself was young, also thirty-four. I was wracked with anxiety… But when I started to design the policy for the sector, its specific objectives and the approach for its implementation, I realized that I had an opportunity to take on board the criticisms and the ideas for social change that I had been flooded with when I was traveling through rural areas as a sociological researcher.

Very quickly, I felt motivated and committed to participate in the drive for socioeconomic transformation, despite the constant threat that we ourselves would be violently overthrown by a coup d’état.

Hadrien Clouet

And what did you have in this ministry, in terms of resources and your team?

Joséphine Ouédraogo

I felt rather alone in an old institution. The staff were motivated by their practical activities, which were certainly very noble but driven by the spirit of assistance from above. Except for the secretary-general and the chief of staff, whom I had myself appointed, most of the ministry did not understand or accept the revolutionary process that was now underway. But they were quite sympathetic to my good intentions. To help me in my strategic thinking and to develop priority programs, I created what I called a support unit within the cabinet. I picked a handful of experienced and motivated managers within the ministry to be its members.

On the financial side, the creation of a National Solidarity Fund under my department offered an instrument for raising awareness and mobilizing the population in collective responsibility. Also, I could use the available funds to carry out emergency relief, investment, training, and redevelopment works for the most vulnerable social groups: victims of natural disasters, children living on the street, people in precarious situations and with disabilities, etc.

Thomas Sankara himself raised awareness among the population with these words: “It is our dignity that’s at stake; faced with these people dying of starvation in the Sahel or elsewhere, victims of drought, of hunger, of the degradation of their land which has become arid and unproductive, do you want us to become international beggars just to feed and help them, when we have the capacity to do so with our own resources?”

Hadrien Clouet

What did this Family Development policy consist of?

Joséphine Ouédraogo

I set myself three orientations. First, we had to work to improve the economic conditions of women in rural and working-class urban areas. To do this, we decided to transform the social centers used for socio-domestic education activities (cooking, dressmaking, etc.) into centers where women could learn income-generating trades (food processing, weaving), with a fund for social and health education.

Second, we wanted to rehabilitate the status of women within the family. Most Burkinabé women were (and still are) victims of traditions that undermine their freedom and dignity. In matters of marriage, widowhood, and inheritance, many women are subject to practices that we wanted to combat through legislative means. In collaboration with the Women’s Union of Burkina Faso, we undertook a draft of the first Family Code.

In the West Africa of that time, ministries of justice were still using the Napoleonic Code, tradition, or religion to deal with women’s and children’s rights issues. This new Family Code was finalized after the revolution and grants rights to women. Examples include inheritance for widows and orphans, prohibition of levirate [a widow being made to marry the dead husband’s brother], restriction of polygamy and dowry, prohibition of forced and early marriage, etc.

Third, it was necessary to carry out the orders that came directly from President Sankara. In his desire to establish gender equality, he decreed what he called the “living wage” for married women who were not wage earners. This involved cutting married men’s salaries by about a third to systematically pay their wives for the domestic and economic work they did for free to maintain the family.

Unfortunately, implementing this measure was difficult, if not impossible. It was my department’s job to analyze the conditions for making it operational. When people are polygamous, how do you divide the salary between two wives? With the exception of civil servants, salaries in the private sector were not computerized, nor subject to a government decision. So, what means were there to get the living wage paid to wives? We did not have the technical and institutional answers to these questions.

Sankara intended to reduce the salaries of civil servants — at least 70 percent of whom were men — which he considered too high in relation to the work they did, and unfair in comparison to the income of most farmers and artisans in the informal sector. On this point too, I asked that he give my team time to study the socioeconomic implications of such a measure for the households concerned.

With the president’s agreement, we launched a study of the incomes of a sample of urban and peri-urban households headed by functionaries from the different categories of the civil service. The results showed that even the most modest households lived or survived on resources well above the average monthly salary of fifty thousand CFA francs [equivalent to €90 today].  More than 50 percent of the additional resources were provided by working family members other than the salaried head of household, notably women and girls.

Every day they provided fuel, water, and food based on their own small business activities. Reducing wages would have further increased these women’s burdens. The solution was, instead, to be found in giving economic value to women’s domestic tasks, but above all in investments to provide households with water and energy. I think that if I were not a sociologist, I would not have tried to analyze the problem from this angle.

Hadrien Clouet

How did popular involvement play out — what forms of democracy were used?

Joséphine Ouédraogo

I was struck, indeed influenced, by President Sankara’s democratic mode of governance. He conceived democracy as a process of participation of all social strata in national development by forging a spirit of collective responsibility. This presupposed that the population be informed about the orientations of revolutionary policy and that they participate in a certain level of debate. Dialogue, and informing and sensitizing the population, were the principles of his democratic governance; he advocated transparency and accountability from those appointed to lead the country.

The democratic system bequeathed to our leaders by France when Upper Volta gained independence [in 1960] was essentially based on periodic elections to pick the president, MPs, and mayors. This was the only criterion for democracy: as long as these figures were elected, the country was qualified as democratic by the international community. But what understanding of constitutional texts can there be among a population that is mostly illiterate? Electoral rallies, generally held in French and without debate or dialogue at the most local level, were not enough to offer the population freedom of criticism, of proposals, let alone of choice. What is the democratic content of such a “democratic” system?

In 1983, Sankara wanted to change all that, by laying the foundations for systematic consultations and popular participation. When he launched a slogan or a new national-scale measure (for example, “Let’s produce and consume in Burkina Faso,” “Ban bush fires and animal roaming in order to preserve the environment,” “One grove per village to encourage tree planting throughout the national territory,” etc.), each minister was responsible for organizing “grassroots” meetings in local languages to explain the measure to the relevant social categories.

He advised us as ministers to go to our base (traders, craftsmen, women, farmers, herders, etc.) to discuss the measures and respond to their concerns. Sankara told us: “Go out on the ground, tell them what the watchword is. I want you to speak in their language, explain.”

I’d learned quite a few concepts in French, for example democracy, but didn’t know them in my mother tongue. In short, we had to debate, let people react and so on, which I found interesting. Through this exercise, Sankara wanted to make people free to speak, particularly women and young people. During any public meeting orchestrated by a technical or political administration, a delegate of the women and youth from that locality had to take the floor to react.

Another form of consultation was the introduction of peasant assembly days, bringing together two thousand to three thousand peasant delegates from all over the country, in large tents equipped with simultaneous interpretation systems. After explaining the meaning of a new policy measure, Sankara would lead the discussion with the assembly present, to understand their concerns and try to get their support. The meeting was held in local languages through simultaneous interpretation. The farmers quickly took to using the individual microphones and the interpretation system.

Information and debate on political and social issues was no longer restricted to the educated and experts working in government, the private sector, and NGOs. Sankara wanted to democratize speech and access to information and knowledge.

Maxime Quijoux

At the time, what did it mean to be a woman minister in this government?

Joséphine Ouédraogo

In the revolutionary atmosphere of the time, the consideration that president Sankara openly and politically gave to women was a bulwark against discrimination and macho harassment among members of the government. In this type of regime you felt comfortable putting them in their place!

President Sankara defended women’s rights and advocated gender equality, which obviously clashed with the very retrograde mindset of the time. He appointed five women ministers and that was a first: apart from me — and I was in charge of a department traditionally entrusted to women — the others were in charge of the budget, the environment, health, and culture, respectively.

Hadrien Clouet

How did you experience the end of the revolutionary process and the assassination of President Sankara on October 15, 1987?

Joséphine Ouédraogo

It was a brutal shock for me like for everyone else. I was on mission outside the country at the time of the coup. Thomas Sankara agreed that I should go to Geneva, at the invitation of a major NGO, to give a speech for World Food Day, celebrated every year on October 16. He told me, “You have to go and give the message that we don’t want to be fed on a drip anymore, but we want to produce what we need, we want to solve the problem of food security through national sovereignty.” In short, I had a message to give. I said goodbye to him before I left.

On October 15 at 8 PM, a journalist friend alerted me to the coup. I heard the official confirmation on the TV news in my hotel room.

Before I left the capital, Ouaga, the political climate had been very tense and we were aware that there could be a coup d’état. This bloodily came to pass on October 15, costing the life of President Thomas Sankara and twelve of his political allies. I was out of the country, and I had a choice: to stay abroad or to return. For me, there was no question of staying away, because that would have implied that I felt guilty about something. I was committed enough to the revolution’s social vision to have to face the consequences — not without some fear.

So, as soon as the borders were open, I made my position clear to everyone, that I was not on the run and that I would return on the first available flight.

When I returned, I found that as well as the death of Thomas Sankara and twelve colleagues, some of my fellow ministers were in prison. Upon arrival, I was placed under house arrest for several weeks. My husband had been posted in Tunisia for a few months. He was there with the children. In December 1987, when my house arrest was lifted, I asked for an audience with President Blaise Compaoré to seek permission to join my family in Tunis. He agreed and I left Burkina Faso, until July 1992, when I returned to open my own research office.

Maxime Quijoux

Do you have the impression that today, in Burkina Faso, the memory of Thomas Sankara is present, contested, or celebrated? What is the revolution’s legacy?

Joséphine Ouédraogo

Since 2014, the memory of Thomas Sankara and the revolution has been more alive than ever. During the popular uprising of that year, images of Thomas Sankara were displayed and brandished everywhere.

Previously, individuals and groups who identified with Sankara or who championed his legacy could face repression or exclusion. But [after the 2014 revolution] President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré laid the foundation stone for the Thomas Sankara memorial, in the presence of personalities from around the world. This building will celebrate the deeds of the revolution and the thought of Sankara, in order to inspire the youth of Burkina Faso.

Recently, the president also decided to restore the Institute of the Black Peoples, created under Sankara, whose activities were frozen after his assassination. Sankara’s vision and his political engagement was not only about the fate of the Burkinabé people. He had a global vision of social justice, of the emancipation of peoples excluded and oppressed because of their origins, their races, their social positions.

Black Americans, the Afro-descendant diaspora, finally saw in Sankara the recognition of their own dignity, which had been trampled on because they had been slaves and their descendants. The rehabilitation of Thomas Sankara would be incomplete without the rehabilitation of the Institute of the Black Peoples.